Mrs M continues her blog series with advice on working in a classroom with a child who has autism. She has enormous personal experience, which you will see shining through in the post, as well as very practical advice. Please do share any top tips that you have as well! – Kathy
Mrs M. writes:
Before I dive straight in with the practical tips in this month’s blog. I want to talk a little bit about my past experience, as it has shaped my whole ethos in relation to autism within the classroom.
I am a mum to a 12 year old boy who was diagnosed on the autism spectrum several years ago now. And my background as far back as I can remember is in nursery management. But as my kids became older I made the move into a primary school setting, and I soon discovered my calling as an Autism HLTA in a resourced provision.
My career path hasn’t always been plain sailing let me tell you.
I can remember like it was yesterday my first job supporting an autistic child in reception. Because despite all my training nothing could prepare me for the rollercoaster of emotions I was about to experience working alongside him.
He had almost no language and huge sensory needs. He found the transition from home to school very difficult, which would lead him to become very upset every day.
So for a while I felt totally out of my depth.
I remember feeling so worried about getting it wrong, that it stopped me being innovative and thinking outside the box. I had an awful feeling that I just wasn’t up to the job. I couldn’t seem to ‘connect’ with him.
The worry and feeling of inadequacy would keep me awake at night sometimes.
On days when he had particularly struggled, I would feel mentally and physically drained. I saw it as my fault. I felt like a failure as I didn’t feel like I was actually ‘teaching’ him anything.
But slowly, day by day I quickly learnt that this little boy was actually the one teaching me, as much as I was there to teach him. In order to enable him to learn, I had to get into his world and see things from his viewpoint.
And once I had changed my mind set, I could begin to see what made him tick. How he learnt, and how the environment could be moulded around him to accommodate his individual needs. And as a result he blossomed. His language flourished and he made small steps of progress in all aspects of his school life.
Because he was happy, he began to trust me. And I built on what he could do not what he couldn’t!
I just had to follow his lead- and have the conviction in my belief that true inclusion was not me bending him to fit our system, but in fact that our system needed to bend to fit him. True inclusion for me was celebrating his uniqueness, stretching his skills from a starting point of success, and truly accepting him for who he was.
So if you’re reading this today and your job is to support a child with autism – then believe me you are privileged.
You can read text books, do as many courses as you like, and even internet search autism until your blue in the face… but working with a child is what will teach you the most.
Each child is an individual, and each child will have something individual to teach you… if you let them.
You will make mistakes and feel like some days you just haven’t got it right. But believe me if you learn from those mistakes and truly listen to what the child you are working with is telling you, then the rollercoaster ride is an amazing one.
Working with children on the spectrum has taught me so much I hardly even know where to start. But I am going to try…
So over the next few months, I will share with you some of the things I learnt through trial and error, experience, failure, blood sweat and tears. And most importantly – those moment that made it all worthwhile when these amazing children succeeded and let me glimpse into their world.
I will share things that worked well, and not so well… as ever with me it will be warts and all!
So here goes, first of all I will look at-
The classroom environment.
The layout of your room is essential. Clutter, lack of space, noise, and too much visual stimuli can really affect a child’s ability to focus and concentrate. So why not do a walk around and see how autism friendly your learning environment is…
- Consider where your child is sitting. Are there any distracting displays where your child does their work?
- Is there a draught or rumbling heater blowing out hot air that could be causing them some sensory issues?
- Do they need to be sat closer to the whiteboard to be able to engage with the interactive elements of the session? Or would they be better sitting separately from the group…maybe on a chair so they aren’t affected by being in the crowd?
- Also having a whiteboard and pen to write/ draw the key points of discussion can help a child engage with what is going on if there’s lots of listening involved.
- Having relevant visuals in the correct places sounds obvious but can make such a huge difference. So for example a ‘good sitting’, ‘good looking’ and ‘good listening’ prompt near the carpet can help remind a child what to do in each situation.
- Giving the child a way to communicate even if they have good language can also help. Many children on the spectrum don’t know how to ask for help or express their feelings. So a feelings chart on the wall numbered 1-5 with visual support can help. http://www.5pointscale.com/
- As can a lanyard or coil with individual visuals that your child uses themselves. This could help your child express him or herself and reduce their anxiety greatly. Things you could include are – ‘help please’/ ‘I need a break’/ ‘I’m worried’/ ‘I’m angry.’ Etc.
- Or simply 3 faces or colours can be enough for younger children (green= happy, orange = I need help, red= I need a break/ I’m worried).
- It is also a good idea for you as the support worker to carry appropriate visuals at all times too. Often talking to a child when they are upset, or when they have reached the point that they can’t process language (due to being in a high state of arousal), can aggravate the situation further. Whereas simply prompting a way out using a visual (e.g. ‘go to your safe space’) can often help de-escalate things pretty quickly.
Simple yet effective visual prompts that can be easily made.
- Talking about safe spaces…is there a safe place in your classroom that is distraction free? This really is a must have. It could be a tent, a blanket over a desk, or a quiet room somewhere where your child can escape to calm down.
- Are there lots of visual supports for class rules and behaviours around the learning space, inside and outside, and not forgetting in the toilets and playground? Children who have what can be considered as having a good level of spoken language can have hidden delayed processing of language… so visual support is essential at all times.
- Focus on the behaviour you want with your visual support not the behaviour you don’t want as many children will only hear the behaviour you mention; so for example
Don’t say NO TALKING as all they may hear is ‘talking’
Instead say LISTEN
- Another must have is the class timetable which can often be put up and forgotten about as we can believe the child copes without it. But remember…. many children on the spectrum can bottle things up at school, and parents can report that they’re having lots of upset at home. Which doesn’t always match up to what we see at school. (Remember the bottle of pop analogy!) They can often cope all day with the noise, unpredictability and new experiences they are faced with at school and then when they get home….. bang! The lid is off. So visual timetables are the very basic reasonable adjustments that should be available to children in the And remember they should be a) visual, it could be a list for older classes and pictures for younger pupils b) up to date and being used daily and c) accurate and allowing for any unexpected surprises in the day well in advance.
- What is the noise level like in your room? Could ear defenders help at particularly noisy times?
- Is their coat peg in the middle or the end? It may be better on the end so they don’t have to struggle with the hustle and bustle at coat time.
- Regulating body temperature can be difficult for some children on the spectrum. Is your room temperature OK? Visual instructions describing what to do if they get too hot or too cold can help some children.
- Can you smell the lunch cooking in your classroom? Some children on the spectrum can be hyper sensitive to smells. So it may just be worth noting that this could be an issue for some children in your class, and it could be affecting their ability to focus at certain times of the day.
- Are all your resources and activities labelled with words and visuals to allow for increased independence?
- Colour coding can work for really well for children on the spectrum. So for example keeping all literacy books and resources in yellow storage boxes, maths in green, and free choice activities in blue boxes etc. can all help promote independent learning.
Next – How using timers can help children in the classroom
Here are some links to timers that I have found work well for pupils on the spectrum.
Timers can help in the following ways
- Transition in-between activities to give them a warning that time is almost up, as stopping abruptly can cause distress.
- To help the child understand the structure of the school day.
- Managing reward/ free choice time.
- To enable the child to see how much longer they have to wait (some children have no concept of time.)
- To encourage children to have a go at a less favoured activity for a short length of time.
- To see that something that’s unstructured will come to an end.
I hope you have found some of these ideas helpful, please do let me know I love to hear your comments. And next month I will look at managing children’s anxiety in the classroom, sensory needs and behaviour as a form of communication.
A slice of Autism: What’s normal anyway is now available from Amazon, with 10 Five Star reviews, this book is definitely worth a read!